The Quest for Originality: Steve Martin’s Long Road to Funny

Steve Martin speaks at Princeton. Photo credit: Princeton University, Office of Communications, John Jameson.

Steve Martin described his journey from a boyhood spent selling guidebooks at Disneyland and performing magic acts for the Boy Scouts to his rise as one of the most well known stand-up comedians in the world for a full house at Princeton University Thursday night.

“At 15 I knew I wanted to be in show business,” Martin said. “But there was a problem. I had no gifts. I could not sing, dance or act. But in spite of this lack of natural ability I had the one element that was a necessity to all early creativity — naivete. It’s a fabulous quality that keeps us from knowing just how unsuited we are for what we are about to do.”

Martin, welcomed by author Joyce Carol Oates and greeted by the audience of about 500 with shouts and cheers, gave the talk “Stand Up: My Rise and Collapse” for this year’s Spencer Trask lecture, part of the University’s public lecture series. He spoke about his early career for over an hour, and then signed autographs for eager fans.

His talk, sprinkled with lines from some of his well known stand-up bits and illustrated with photos of a young Steve juggling in his backyard, a hippie Steve with sideburns and turquoise jewelry and the famous, coiffed Steve in his signature white suit, was classic Steve Martin with its self-deprecating, funny and sometimes poignant moments, like when he choked up as he looked at his old set list of forgotten routines.

He divided his 18 years of stand-up comedy in to three phases: 10 years of learning, four years of refining his work and four year of wild success.

His time spent with magicians as a teen, his study of philosophy as a college student and his observations of other people in show business all influenced how he saw himself as a comedian and shaped his creative genius in fundamental ways.

While working in a magic shop he said he studied a book on showmanship for magicians that advised musicians to use music, rhythm, comedy and sex appeal in their performances. He also learned that “everything in show business is about to become old fashioned.”

“Then it was something I just ignored, he said. “But it landed on me with a thud five years later — originality. At 16 who cares, I was doing magic shows for Cub Scouts. But then I noted something in my shows. They love it when the tricks don’t work.”

At 18, Martin landed a job at the Bird Cage Theater at Knott’s Berry Farm in California, performing four or five shows a night while attending Long Beach State College during the day. He majored in philosophy, and said it served his artistic pursuits well.

“People told me it was a useless major, but it changed my life,” he said. “Descartes said I think, therefore am. He started from scratch. I said why not do that with comedy?”

Comedians performed one-liner jokes with punchlines at the time. But Martin made what he calls the Darwinian discovery that comedy could evolve. He removed anything that was not original from his shows.

“I knew I would have to write everything in the act myself,” he said. “Any idea that had a vague feeling of familiarity had to be taken out. Nothing could be left in that would make the audience feel they were not seeing something utterly new…I had to drop some of the best one-liners form my routine, all borrowed. I had to cut 10 minutes from a 20 minute act. I felt like I had become a man now, an adult.”

Instead of telling jokes about other people, Martin made fun of himself and created his own character.

“On a trip to New York when I was 20, I wrote a postcard to my girlfriend Nina telling her my act was going to go avant-garde because it was the only way to do what I wanted,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what that meant, but there is no harm charging oneself up with delusions.”

Martin reconsidered the traditional joke and said it bothered him that laughs were like applause at the end of a song, with the audience being told when to laugh.

“What about the comedy experience with friends where there is no set up and no punchline, and often you can’t explain what it is that made you laugh?” he said. “There is a sense you had to be there. This formed the idea that stayed with me — what if there were no punchlines, no indicators a joke had been told. What if you created tension and never released it. What would the audience do with all that tension?

“Theoretically it would have to come out some time,” he said. “The audience would eventually pick its own place to laugh essentially out of desperation. They chose where to laugh rather than being told where to laugh. What could be worse than to tell the audience how funny something was going to be? I wanted to do the opposite of all the rules.”

Martin said he wanted to make audiences believe he didn’t care if they laughed at all. “This took their worry away for the poor guy on stage,” he said. “My goal was to make the audience laugh, but leave them unable to describe what made them laugh. In other words you had to be there. At least that was the theory. I rolled it up a hill like Sisyphus for 10 years.”

Martin landed a job writing for the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1967 in what he described as one of several “lucky accidents” in his career. He had other television writing gigs, but decided if he was ever going to make it as a comedian he needed to leave those lucritive jobs and take his comedy show on the road.

“I was booked at little colleges or very cheesy night clubs with names like “The Beef and Bottle,” he said. “But I was free there. Nobody was watching. I was free to work on my material and I came up with my rambling guy persona. I gave myself mock heroic qualities. I said things like `I’m so wild and crazy, I like to do really wild and crazy things like wearing two socks on one foot!’ I was out there winging it a lot.”

His performances started to evolve, Martin said, and he began to connect with audiences, hanging out with people long after the shows officially had ended.

“I felt like something free and unpredictable was happening,” he said. “Every new performance brought my comedy in to sharper focus. The act became more physical. I’d step in to the audience to shake hands. This new physicality brought an unexpected element in to the act — precision. The routines wove the verbal with the physical and I found pleasure in trying to bring in to lines that each spoken idea had to be physically expressed. Sometimes it was not the line, but the tip of my finger that made people laugh. I discovered I could get laughs with silence. I’d stare at the audience with mock disdain. Everyone seemed to know a joke was going on and we didn’t know what it was.”

Martin said he finally understood the quote by poet E.E. Cummings, “‘Like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.”

“Precision was moving the plot forward,” Martin said. “Filling every moment with content, the connective ether keeping the audience engaged. Every second, every gesture mattered.”

Martin began getting booked as a headliner act, appeared on the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” several times,  and then watched the premier of Saturday Night Live in 1975.

“I thought, fuck, they did it!” he said. “The show was a blow to my belief that I was carrying the new comedy flag alone.”

He hosted Saturday Night Live in 1977 and became an overnight sensation. Thousands flocked to his shows and soon he was touring all the time, visiting 63 cities in 63 days. The schedule and the fame started to wear on him and he felt nuance was becoming difficult “when I had become just a dot in a basketball arena.”

“It was no longer an experiment and I felt a huge responsibility to be funny,” he said. “There was also something more difficult to explain. My act was rooted in a concept and now the concept had been expressed and understood. There was no point in re-expressing it in variations.”

Martin said he was physically and emotionally exhausted, felt broken by the demands he put on himself, felt alone on and off the stage, and became depressed.

He also worried about his fame fading quickly. He decided he should focus instead on a career as an actor. He also became a playwright, novelist and musician and has been wildly successful in all of his other creative endeavors after he left stand-up comedy.

“I felt over the last few years I had lost contact with what I was doing,” he said. “I was suffering an artistic crisis I didn’t know I had the capacity for. I’d fully explored a creative experience that had dead ended. I never did stand up again.”